What's the difference between thinking about the future and thinking about the past?

The future is not a capitalist enterprise. Memory shortcomings, the art of astral projection, and building a future we can be proud of.

The U.S. is publicly grappling with a few difficult realities, one of which is the rash of states attempting to ban trans girls and women from competing in sports alongside athletes of their own gender. Surprise surprise, it’s actually excellent for people to have access to sports that align with their gender, and no, it won’t impact anyone’s ability to find success in competition.

What started as public worry about the future of women’s sport if trans women and cis women were to compete together quickly became an all-out war on trans people in general. This past week, which has ironically coincided with the international Trans Week of Visibility, at least 25 states introduced legislation that would ban trans youth from accessing lifesaving gender-affirming healthcare like puberty blockers (which are already safely used to treat symptoms of early puberty in cis children, among other common applications). Many iterations of these bills would also criminalize medical practitioners who offer this type of treatment. And for what? Legislators’ fear of what a future would look like with living, thriving trans constituents who have equitable access to care?

In a similar vein, this week I wrote about my position on Substack’s repeated failure to apply its terms of service across this platform.

There is a contingent of “journalists” who use Substack for their personal crusades, free of consequence or accountability from the publisher. A few of these “journalists” in particular have been permanently banned from other sites for their continued breach of the platforms’ terms of service that prohibit hate speech. I use scare quotes because, in my opinion, these individuals sully the reputation of legitimate journalists whose mission is to report and analyze facts rather than to incite their followers to enact violence. The subjects of these attacks in this case? Trans people.

My feelings on the matter and subsequent plan of action have lots to do with building a future that reflects community-centred strength and people’s capacity to invest in the world they leave behind. Cliché? Definitely! But I think anything less than ensuring things will be easier and safer for future generations is a failure of the present.

Another good example of a short-sighted political manoeuvre that has widespread effects on the future is the manipulation of the public school curriculum. The government of Alberta is currently rolling out a new primary school curriculum that eliminates “all references to residential schools and ‘equity’”, which has parents and educators sounding the alarm. Instead, the UCP government have turned to rote memorization and concepts that experts call “Eurocentric, dismissive of Indigenous perspectives, and not based on research about how best to teach young children.” One of the UCP government’s appointed “subject matter experts” called learning Indigenous perspectives a “fad” in defence of the new programming.

From a CBC report:

Some education experts also say the proposed changes are regressive, racist, unsupported by research and would put Alberta's school curriculum vastly out of step with most of North America.

What society do we think we’re leaving behind if all people with power are doing is making sure those who fall outside the narrow acceptable parameters of race, gender, ability, and economic circumstance don’t have access to the power they require to exercise self-determination? People without elite political power deserve to world build for their successors, too.

I think one of the problems plaguing situations like these is an unwillingness to cast one’s mind forward and consider whether the systems in place are there to create an abundant future for all, or if they will work to cultivate a future that only has a place for a select few.

As you can tell, I’ve been thinking about the future. What does it hold for us and our world? What does it hold for me, personally? How can we even think about the future in the midst of urgent crises that have put it in jeopardy, for both individuals and as a collective? I often worry that as a society we’re simply not well-equipped to think beyond our immediate temporal position. Our position in time being what it is, fixed in the present with unreliable memories as the only window to our personal past, limits how we’re able to conceive of things we haven’t experienced yet. We fear the unknown and dismiss the far away. Immediacy is an important condition for understanding pretty much anything at all. That’s why the most theoretical fields are comprised of a minuscule group of people who can grasp ideas uprooted from the physical world.

There are a few people who happen to be bridging the gap between the conceptual future and the physical present. One of my favourite thinkers in this genre is Rose Eveleth, science communicator extraordinaire and host of the podcast Flash Forward. Rose’s strategy for bringing hypothetical futures into the present is taking one element of a potential future and slotting it into an accessible context. For example, one episode opens in a version of 2022 where fictional academic Catherine Moore receives her PhD in time travel and proceeds to swear an oath to uphold the ethical tenets of the Department of Transportation (hah). Another opening segment explores the immediate effects of a magnetic pole switch through a conversation about smartwatch technology.

Eveleth is now widely known by the title futurologist, thanks to an appearance on Alie Ward’s podcast Ologies. Her work is wide-ranging with focuses on futuristic technologies, medicine, earth sciences, ethics, and other disciplines. Unlike futurism, which is about understanding the future and taking an active role in world transformation, futurology is asking the critical questions about where we’re headed. Lots of people are asking if we can do something, but significantly fewer are asking if we should.

This is especially helpful in the context of today’s discussion about the future. As we’ve just explored, the institutions that steer long-term future planning (and who have wide-reaching influence over cultural learning, technological accessibility, and more) tend to exclude vulnerable people and marginalized groups from their vision. Here’s one exchange between Ward and Eveleth on a future that considers who’s present in discussions about the future:

Alie: When you are looking at the future, how much do you think about yourself in those situations?

Rose: I try to think about myself in those situations, but I also try to remember that my experience is singular, and I'm a cis white lady born into the United States and all of those things. And so, one of the big things I try to do in my work with Flash Forward and elsewhere is think about like, “Okay, but what if I was somebody else? And what if I had less privilege than I have now? And how does this impact these people?”

For example, in the episode I did about CRISPR – sort of like gene editing of human babies and stuff like that – which I was working on and had basically done, and then the news broke about the Chinese scientist with the CRISPR babies, and I was like, “[groans in frustration] I just finished this episode and I have to go back and redo stuff.” But that episode, most of the interviewees, most of the guests on that episode, were disabled people. And [we ended up discussing], “What is it like to hear all these scientists talk about eliminating you, basically? What is that like? What would it be like to be the last deaf person on Earth?”

So I try really hard to think about how people who are not like me might feel or find themselves in those futures. And I try to interview a lot of people on the show that are not like me, so I can kind of be like, “How do you feel about this? What do you think about this?” For the episode about body swapping, everybody on that episode almost, except for one, is a trans person and it's like, “Okay, how does this correlate with your experiences, and your feelings about bodies, and stuff like that?” 'Cause I don't know what that's like. So yeah, thinking through who are the people who are going to be most impacted by this – and it's probably not me – and trying to find those people is really important, I think.

And crucially, Eveleth is also considering who the primary architects of potential futures are and how those “professional futurists” are upholding normative structures in our world. To her, futurology isn’t a capitalist enterprise.

Alie: And I asked Rose if at the heart of futurology is just wanting to believe that things will be better than they are today. And she said that one reason she uses the term futurologist for herself, as someone who studies the future, is because a lot of professional futurists are people hired by big Fortune 500 companies who have an interest in maintaining the status quo because it’s how those corporations make their money. And ethically she doesn’t feel aligned with that.

I’m taking inspiration from this idea to explore what it means to think about the future. Not in a logistical way or to suss out what wacky technologies might emerge, but in a more human sense. What does it take to project ourselves into a future that hasn’t happened yet? Do walks down memory lane equip us to explore in the other direction? Can our minds construct a future that we can travel to?

To the future!

Let’s begin with visualization. It’s the easiest and most common method of constructing time and space within the confines of our minds. We do it countless times a day. That being said, there are so many theories about where and how simple mental images are made that it wouldn’t really be helpful to go into them here, so I’ll break it down to two examples you might be familiar with: daydreaming and athletic performance.

  1. Daydreaming feels a little bit supernatural. Try to conjure the feeling of snapping back into reality, having just experienced a whole inner world almost without realizing it. Any sensations you felt weren’t products of the physical world, they came from within; all brain chemicals, a mix of memories and constructed realities. Daydreams of this calibre require the right circumstances, but they’re typically unintentional.

  2. The mental visualization that athletes use to hone their craft is well documented. Using the mind’s eye as a training ground to prepare for high-leverage situations or difficult manoeuvres actually engages the same regions of the brain that are active if the subject were doing instead of just visualizing. This kind of visualization is effectively practice.

Both types of visualization can be so absorbing as to block out the physical world altogether.

Hold on to that thought.

So if the brain can construct a world based on an activity or as part of a daydream, what’s to say the same can’t be done on demand for other purposes? Some people who have experienced spontaneous out-of-body experiences (OBEs), like while under anesthesia or during a near death experience, end up with stories of how their consciousness felt like it was separating from their body. They report hyper-realistic sensations, conversations with others, and even travels.

The fringe field that examines intentional out-of-body experiences (OBEs) is called astral projection. It takes the same ideas behind visualization and expands the purpose to include just about any outcome you can think of. We’re talking time travel, space travel, cosmic and/or spiritual connections, and lots more.

According to Jane Aspell, cognitive researcher at the UK’s Anglia Ruskin University, astral projection (and OBEs in general) are often the result of physical changes to the brain.

"If the brain does not function as it should – e.g., because of epilepsy/brain injury/lack of oxygen — then this model can give rise to an experience that differs from what we usually experience (our self being located inside our bodies)," Aspell says. "There is evidence from multiple scientific studies that OBEs arise because of abnormal functioning of an area of the brain called the temporo-parietal junction. This is an area that combines signals from multiple senses to create the model of our self in the world.”

When the brain malfunctions, Aspell adds, "it gives rise to an unusual model (and experience) of the self in the world – one that seems to be separated from the body."

The concept of astral projection has been around for millennia, but it was popularized in the western world in the 19th century with the founding of the Theosophical Society in New York. One of the society’s founders, Russian aristocrat and student of world religion Helena Blavatsky, invoked astral projection in her teachings to demonstrate the far-reaching capabilities of the astral body that outpace that of the “mere flesh” body.

The idea here is that one can harness that feeling of “separation” between the consciousness and the body and project yourself to different places or times, into space, or find connections with others. It’s not unlike meditation or falling asleep, in that the goal is to clear the mind and follow it into the astral realm. In the practice of throwing yourself into a hypothetical future, these building blocks are important to establishing what kind of world it will be when you arrive.

Stay with me. We have visualization. We have visualization on steroids, astral projection. Now we’re in a position to talk about how memory influences the future.

In 2011, Washington University neuroscientist Kathleen McDermott presented at the Foundational Questions Institute conference on the nature of time. She began with a quote from noted memory researcher Endel Turving, who called the ability to remember the past and anticipate the future “mental time travel.” It’s easy to be convinced by this little phrase when you think about the ease with which the mind moves through time. Memories provide a (tenuous, sure) link to the past, and the mind has the power to conceive futures that span all kinds of realities.

From Scientific American contributor George Musser on McDermott’s talk:

McDermott outlined the case of Patient K.C., who has even worse amnesia than the better-known H.M. on whom the film Memento was based. K.C. developed both retrograde and anterograde amnesia from a motorcycle crash in 1981. He can't remember anything that happened more than a few minutes ago. He retains facts and skills, but can't remember actually doing anything or being anywhere.

Tellingly, not only can he not recall the past, he can't envision the future. When researchers ask him to picture himself somewhere he might go, he says that all he sees is "a big blankness." Another patient McDermott has worked with can explain the future in the abstract, but says he can't imagine himself in it.

To investigate the perception of past and future in people without brain injuries, McDermott did fMRI brain scans of 21 college students, asking them to recall a specific incident in their past and then envision themselves in a specific future scenario. Subjectively, the two feel very different. Yet the scans showed the same patterns of activity. Areas scattered all over the brain lit up; our temporal perception is distributed.

The bottom line is that memory is essential to constructing scenarios for ourselves in the future. Anecdotal evidence backs this up. Our ability to project forward and to recollect the past both develop around age 5, and people who are good at remembering also report having vivid thoughts about the future.

So we need the ability to remember in order to imagine what’s next. The magic of envisioning futures for ourselves relies so heavily on our ability to take in what’s happening now, and retrieving what happened in the past, even if they don’t have very much to do with each other. It’s the practice that allows the brain to expand and explore all the temporal spaces out there.

I think what I’m getting at here is that there’s an immense need to document our lives, especially if how we’re living is outside the normative social framework. If we don’t tell our stories or communicate our truest selves, how on earth will we be able to conceive of futures that include ourselves?

That’s what I love so much about how Rose Eveleth approaches futurology - she makes a point to know about people and things whose relationship to futuristic technologies is different than her own. I wonder what would happen in the legislative rooms, in the working groups, in the classrooms if the people doing the “doing” could experience the other side of their power; if they were able to glide their minds back and forth in time to witness what has happened and what’s coming next.

There are ethical ramifications to being a future-builder that are far beyond what can be predicted with a futurist’s “can it be done” lens. The more that we, individually, can learn, the more we will remember and apply to our futures. And the more we can conceive of rich futures for us all, the better off the future will be. The “should it be done” has longer staying power.

Go astral project to somewhere nice when you fall asleep tonight. You deserve it.